Learning by mistake: the role of humour in active learning

Wendy Johnston

Photo of yellow painted eggs with various facial expressions

What is the idea?

Many students fear assessed skills presentations. Experiences of observing students undertaking such assessments and seeing the anxiety and stress they can create led me to explore the use of humour as a pedagogic tool and became the catalyst for the development of an innovative method of teaching and learning which is a departure from the norm. Humour creates positive learning environments which actively engages students, encourages reflection, improves retention, and helps relieve anxiety and stress for students. This chapter discusses how humour can be utilised as a powerful instructional tool enabling students to learn from their mistakes by observing what not to do!

Why this idea?

Assessed skills demonstrations/presentations can be stressful for students, raising anxiety levels and making them prone to uncharacteristic errors. I have witnessed many of these and reflected on how analysis of the mistakes could provide useful reinforcement of the correct method of practice. From observing students undertaking assessed food demonstrations, seeing the mistakes that they made, the stress that it caused, and the detrimental impact poor performance had on student’s grades, led me to identify alternative, more effective, teaching strategies.

The summative assessment for the Food and Media module (L5) requires students to deliver a live demonstration to showcase their developed recipe and complete all stages within a 15-minute time frame. Students must control what they are doing whilst effectively interacting with a live audience and ultimately produce an edible dish. Students struggled to present in front of their peers and tutors, and if they made a mistake, it impacted negatively on the remainder of their demonstration and their grades suffered. I therefore reflected on how effective positive analysis of the mistakes could provide useful reinforcement of the correct method of practice and if the use of humour could help break down barriers and create a more relaxed environment.  I wanted to create a receptive learning environment which allowed students to feel comfortable when practising their demonstration skills, to reflect on, analyse and learn from their mistakes in a positive constructive way, to break down barriers to learning and  to improve retention of information. Laughter is one of the most successful defences we have to combat problems, being an effective means of dealing with mistakes made by academics or students in a kind and considerate manner (Welker, 1977). Laughter also helps diffuse embarrassing situations for both students and lecturers within the classroom (Sudol, 1981).

Although many contend that teaching is a serious business and we are not supposed to be entertainers (Berk, 1996), I actively chose to incorporate humour into teaching and learning and to harness it as a strong tool of communication (Kocak, 2018), to create an element of surprise and to make learning enjoyable and memorable. When appropriately used humour has the potential to humanise, illustrate, defuse, encourage, and reduce anxiety (Torock et al., 2010), and it can build trust, increase morale, decrease stress and boost approachability (Kocak, 2018); however, it must never cause offence.

How could others implement this idea?

Prior to summative assessment, build in several formative feedback/feedforward sessions to build students’ confidence. Use humour and role play in one session. Record all sessions for the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) for students to refer to.

Week 1 – Demonstrate simple tasks showing relevant stages and explain how to set up the demonstration area.

Week 2 – Split into two sessions. For session 1, deliver a full demonstration showing in detail how to complete each demonstration stage. Give students a break and reset the demonstration area for a second demonstration. The tutor then needs to step outside their comfort zone and completely change character, (I become ‘Theresa Green’!) – this can require a leap of faith! Using the element of surprise, humour and an element of drama deliver the demonstration again, but this time incorporate all the previous mistakes that you have seen students make into your demonstration. For me this includes getting almost every step of the recipe wrong, not knowing how to use equipment, not involving students as an audience, eyeballing one person, poor verbal and non-verbal communication, poor food hygiene, wearing too much makeup/ jewellery, plus dirty kitchen whites! A plenary session must then discuss each of the demonstrations and explain why humour and role play has been incorporated in the way that it has. It is important to reinforce that the session which used humour had been designed to show how not to deliver a demonstration. These two sessions are designed to teach students not only how to deliver a cookery demonstration correctly, but more importantly to teach them how not to deliver a demonstration. Using this method will enable students to see what mistakes and errors look like from an audience perspective and will ultimately help to break down barriers between students, peers, and lecturers. Although this method goes against traditional teaching methods, it works for my modules. A student states:

“It was so unexpected; we saw Wendy as we had never seen her before and watched incredulously as she made every mistake possible. It was hilarious, but I learned so much. When undertaking my assessed demonstration, I remembered what not to do, which enabled me to complete my assessment successfully. It made learning so memorable, I will never forget it.’’


Week 3 – Continue to build a supportive learning environment. Task students with delivering a 5-minute demonstration e.g., scrambled egg to tutor and peers. Provide detailed feedback/ feedforward.

Week 4- Students complete a full practice demonstration to their tutor and peers using previous feedback. Record. Provide further feedback/feedforward.

Week 5 – Individual tutorials with students to watch recordings of demonstrations and provide constructive feedback/feedforward and support for summative assessment

Week 6 – Summative assessment

Transferability to different contexts

Humour can be used as a pedagogic tool to effectively engage students in learning and skill development. The key principles are transferable across other disciplines particularly where there is an emphasis on skills acquisition including nursing, science, healthcare and Design Technology.


Berk, R. A. (1996). Student ratings of 10 strategies for using humor in college teaching. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 7(3), 71-92.

Kocak, G. (2018). The relationship between humor styles and creativity: A research on academics. Eurasian Journal of Business and Management, 6(4), 44-58. https://doi.org/10.15604/ejbm.2018.06.04.005

Sudol, D. (1981). Dangers of classroom humor. The English Journal, 70(6), 26-28. https://doi.org/10.2307/817146

Torok, S.E, McMorris, R.F,&  Lin, W.C. (2010). Is humor an appreciated teaching tool? Perceptions of professors’ teaching styles and use of humor. College Teaching, 52(1), 14-20. https://doi.org/10.3200/CTCH.52.1.14-20

Welker, W.A. (1977). Humor in education: A foundation for wholesome living. College Student Journal, 52(1), 14-20.

Image Attribution

Yellow painted eggs photo by Roman Odintsov via Pexels


About the author

Wendy Johnston is a Senior Lecturer at LJMU, a National Teaching Fellow and holds Senior Fellowship status with Advance HE. Wendy is committed to implementing innovative, active learning techniques, developing authentic learning environments through the development of external partnerships/ collaborations, and continuously strives to make learning and teaching enjoyable and memorable.


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100 Ideas for Active Learning Copyright © 2022 by Wendy Johnston is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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